Rivera's Olive Oil Cake & Caramel Sauce: If You Haven't Tried It Yet, Make It At Home

John Sedlar, whose downtown restaurant Rivera opened in January, is known more for his flower-embedded nixtamal tortillas, his mole-sauced kurobuta pork chops, his buratta-stuffed chile relleno, his duck enfrijoladas, his chile-powder-as-art plate stencils, and his curating of Latin food history (the New Mexico-born chef has been working on his Museum Tamal project for much of the last decade) than his desserts.

But, after a long meal at Rivera (the chef's middle name), perhaps a series of small plates, perhaps a stint in one of the restaurant's tequila chairs (imagine a Virgin Atlantic lounge chair in an agave field), you might think to order dessert, almost as an afterthought. And you might have the profound good fortune to find yourself with this: A golden disk of cake, as moist as if it had been dunked in that tequila, redolent of lemons and the subtle spice of the Valderrama or Hojiblanca extra virgin olive oil that Rivera pastry chef Rommel De Leon pours into the batter. Atop the simple cake, a quenelle of strawberry sorbet, another of crème fraîche ice cream, a strawberry chip. Next to it, a dice of fresh strawberries. And, strewn around the base, a bit of caramel sauce made with Xerez vinegar, more like a gastrique than a traditional caramel sauce, so vibrant and zingy that I've licked the plate all three times I've ordered it.

Rivera's evoo cake, all decked out
Rivera's evoo cake, all decked out
photo credit: Amy Scattergood

Sedlar says that when he and Rommel were devising the menu, they wanted an evoo (extra virgin olive oil) cake, but that "it seemed like a fine Italian dessert," not exactly in keeping with the Latin American-Spanish theme of the restaurant. Sedlar remembered a vinegar caramel sauce he'd had in Barcelona and thought, "let's get Pedro Ximenez instead." Thus the dessert, which isn't on the menu but is offered many nights as a special. Sedlar says he's thinking of switching out the crème fraîche ice cream, but that the strawberries ("vinegar is a great match with strawberries") will stay as long as they're in season.

Can't get down to Flower Street? Try making the dessert at home. Although you can make the ice cream and sorbet too, it's easy to find high-quality sorbet or gelato. Leave the strawberry chips for the pastry chefs, and just dice a few fresh Gaviotas or Chandlers from the farmers market. The cake is surprisingly simple, as is the caramel.

A word about the caramel sauce: although you may think that pouring 2 cups of sherry vinegar into a small saucepan of cooked sugar is perhaps a misreading of the recipe, just shut up and do it. Cook it down and see what happens. I've made dozens of caramel sauces, but none comes close in taste and texture to this one. With a solid but not overwhelming kick from the vinegar (use as good a quality as you can afford; it's worth it), a bright citrus note from the orange juice, and a glorious texture--smooth, not muddied by unnecessary butter or cream--it's a fantastic complement not only to this dish, but to others as well. A bowl of sliced ripe peaches, say, drizzled with sauce and topped with a spoonful of unsweetened whipped cream.

Olive Oil Cake

Note: From Rivera pastry chef Rommel De Leon.

Makes: 1 8-inch cake

1 cup pastry flour

1 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

5 ounces whole milk

6 ounces extra virgin olive oil

zest of 3 lemons

1. Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees and set the oven rack in the middle.

2. Sift all the dry ingredients into a large bowl. In a separate bowl combine all the wet ingredients and whisk together until well incorporated.

3. Gradually add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients. Add the lemon zest and whisk

until the batter is just free of lumps; be careful not to over-mix.

4. Let the batter rest for a few minutes. Meanwhile, prepare an 8-inch cake pan by greasing the bottom with a little extra olive oil and lining the bottom with parchment paper to prevent the cake from sticking.

5. Pour the batter in the pan and bake for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool the cake completely before slicing.

Rivera's Xerez caramel sauce, made at home
Rivera's Xerez caramel sauce, made at home
photo credit: Amy Scattergood

Xerez Vinegar Caramel Sauce

Note: From Rivera pastry chef Rommel De Leon.

Makes: About 1 cup

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

2 cups Xerez vinegar (or other Spanish sherry vinegar)

juice of 1 large orange

1. In a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan (not aluminum), mix together the sugar and water. Cook over medium-high heat until the sugar melts and the cooks down into a golden brown syrup, about 5-7 minutes.

2. Deglaze the caramel with the vinegar and whisk until the mixture is smooth. Mix in the orange juice.

3. Simmer the liquid and reduce it until it is the consistency of syrup, about 8-10 minutes. Test the sauce by carefully pouring a small amount onto a cold plate: it should have the consistency of honey. Remove the sauce from the heat and allow it to cool down and set before using. If it gets too thick, you can heat it very briefly in the microwave.

RIvera: 1050 S. Flower St., Los Angeles; (213) 749-1460.


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